James Barrett — Unitarian Universalist Reproductive Justice Activist

Note – this is the text for a short talk that I gave on 31 August 2014 as part of a worship service for All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.  The podcast audio recording for this can be found here (my portion starts at the 9:10 mark).

Who has heard of Rev James Reeb?

He’s a famous Unitarian Universalist who made the ultimate sacrifice – giving his life supporting racial justice in 1965.

Now, who has heard of James Barrett, Lt Colonel (US Air Force – retired)?

Jim Barrett is less well-known but he could be considered our “James Reeb of reproductive justice.”

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A Response to “Public Education and Intelligent Design” (Part 1)

On 30 April 2014, Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Dan Harper mentioned a paper by philosopher Thomas Nagel on his blog — “A possible case for teaching intelligent design” is the title of the blog post and the Nagel’s paper is Public Education and Intelligent Design.”

In the opening section of his paper, Thomas Nagel makes the following observation about the assumptions used in the sciences and how they may conflict with religious assumptions:

But the conflicts aired in this trial [Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District]—over the status of evolutionary theory, the arguments for intelligent design, and the nature of science—reveal an intellectually unhealthy situation. The political urge to defend science education against the threats of religious orthodoxy, understandable though it is, has resulted in a counterorthodoxy, supported by bad arguments, and a tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory. Skeptics about the theory are seen as so dangerous, and so disreputably motivated, that they must be denied any shred of legitimate interest. Most importantly, the campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design as beyond discussion because it is not science results in the avoidance of significant questions about the relation between evolutionary theory and religious belief, questions that must be faced in order to understand the theory and evaluate the scientific evidence for it.

I’m not sure what Nagel means by a “counterorthodoxy” and “tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory.”

Yes, it’s true that many scientists are philosophical naturalists (who hold that only natural processes operate in the universe and there is no evidence for supernatural forces of any sort).

A commonly cited statistic is that 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal god (72.2% expressed disbelief and another 20.8% were agnostic concerning the existence of a personal god who answers prayer — cited from Wikipedia).

But even scientists who hold supernatural beliefs (theism – a belief in a personal god) employ methodological naturalism when doing science even if they are not philosophical naturalists.

In writing the Kitzmiller decision, Judge Jones made the following comments about methodological naturalism and its role in the sciences:

“Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena … While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science.” Methodological naturalism is thus “a self-imposed convention of science.” It is a “ground rule” that “requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify.” (cited from Wikipedia)

At first glance, this quote from the judge’s decision appears to support Nagel’s opening statement in his paper.

But that really isn’t the case.

For almost 500 years, we have been successfully used methodological naturalism in our exploration of the world because it works.

It’s not an a priori assumption.

It’s an assumption with a proven track record — a pragmatic assumption.

Greta Christina mentions this on her blog:

When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a very noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller.

Why the sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on.

All of these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the religious explanations were replaced by physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural or religious explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation?

Thousands upon thousands upon thousands.

Now. The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural or religious one? The number of times humankind has said, “We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it’s actually caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul”?

Exactly zero.

Now … there may be theological implications for some regarding methodological naturalism as it is currently used in the sciences.

And there may be theological implications in some conceptual frameworks currently used the sciences.

We now view lighting being caused by electrostatic discharge in clouds.  We don’t consider Thor to be useful here.

We now view HIV and AIDS being caused by a virus.  We don’t find the “AIDS is God’s curse” to be useful.

Our understanding of natural selection and evolution is that both are “material processes, blind, mindless, and purposeless” — a process that happens without forethought or goal.  Google “Luria–Delbrück experiment” — we’ve known that this is a blind and purposeless process for many years.

But one might say this is not consistent with my theology.

The rejection of Thor causing lighting also clashes with some theological opinions.

The rejection of HIV/AIDS being a divine curse clashes with some theological opinions.

The rejection of intelligent design clashes with some theological opinions.

If we are being reasonable in the first two cases ignoring theological concerns (lighting, HIV/AIDS), we may be reasonable ignoring theology in the third case (evolution and natural selection).

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Conservatism Limiting the Growth of Atheism??

I have my doubts about small government libertarian conservative politics if we want to grow atheism and free-thought in the United States.  Recently, the questions surrounding atheism and conservative politics came up in connection to American Atheists President David Silverman attending this years CPAC Conference (“David Silverman: CPAC is crawling with closet atheists“).

I’ve read Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God and I’m currently reading David Niose’s Nonbeliever Nation.  Both books make a similar point about growing atheism and secularism in a democracy.

Secular atheist-friendly societies appear arise naturally in situations where there is a strong social safety net.

Niose (page 197) makes the following observation about this correlation in his book:

“As modern developed countries learn to educate, provide health care, and ensure the general welfare of a diverse population, there is less reliance on religious community and charity. This partly explains why conservative religion so often abhors the modern social welfare state, where the public sector fills many roles once served by religion. It’s little wonder that secularity is most prominent in the social democracies of Europe, where the notion of the public sector serving many essential community needs is widely accepted.”

For a small-government conservative or libertarian conservative atheist, this may seem frustrating.  After all, conservative politics may have the unintended side-effect of keeping religion alive and limiting the growth of atheism.

Posted in Atheism, Atheism Plus, Social Justice | 1 Comment

The “Streisand effect” and sexual harassment allegations

On 8 August 2013, Dr. Ronald A. Lindsay (President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry aka “CFI”) sent a letter to Scientific American asking them to correct an article about a workplace sexual harassment situation written by Dr. Karen Stollznow.

The interesting thing here isn’t the allegation of three corrections Dr. Lindsay wanted in the Scientific American article.  Dr. Lindsay wanted corrections in an article that never named his non-profit corporation.

Scientific American’s response to Dr. Lindsay’s letter was to remove Dr. Stollznow’s column.  He’s never heard of the “Streisand effect.”

Dr. Stollznow’s column can be found online here and also below the fold:

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“Atheism’s growing pains” (Salon.com)

There’s an excellent article describing the nascent “Atheism Plus” community.  Here’s a short excerpt:

As the atheist movement gains numbers and prominence, it’s inevitably been forced to confront questions about what it ultimately seeks to accomplish. Some in the movement favor a narrowly defined set of goals: defending the separation of church and state, keeping creationism out of science classes, protecting atheists from job discrimination and prejudice. But other atheists, while not opposing these goals, see things more broadly. They note that the religious-right lawmakers who promote creationism and state-church entanglements are also rabidly opposed to equality or legal protection for LGBT people; try to ban abortion and contraception, or throw obstacles in the path of women seeking them; sermonize that global warming must be a hoax because God wouldn’t let the planet change that much; advocate a social-Darwinian worldview where the rich have unlimited power and the poor get nothing but societal neglect and harsh repression.

And then, there’s a growing recognition that we have problems within our own community — a realization that atheists, like every other group of people, include sexual predators, bigots and defenders of privilege, and that giving up religion doesn’t necessarily erase these harmful attitudes. For example, at the Women in Secularism conference in February, it emerged during a panel discussion that there’s an informal network of atheist women who warn each other about which prominent atheist men to avoid.

You can read the rest of the article online here.

Posted in Atheism, Atheism Plus, Social Justice | 1 Comment

Cladistics Explained …

From a blog comment by blog reader “wholething” on The Ace of Clades blog on the Freethought Blogs network.

  • All apes are monkeys but not all monkeys are apes.
  • All monkeys are vertebrates but not all vertebrates are monkeys.
  • All mammals are fish but not all fish are mammals, where mammals are fish that are evolved to be specialized to live on land (or in water) and breathe air.
  • All cladistics is fun but not all fun is cladistics.
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Why E. J. Dionne Is Wrong on Contraceptives and Health Care Reform

The Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne is frequently cited as a progressive Catholic who condemns the recent Obama Administration announcement to require all employers (except exclusively religious bodies) to offer contraceptive insurance coverage as part of comprehensive preventive care.  Mr. Dionne has claimed this health care decision infringes on religious liberty.

I’ve already written about why this is a medically and scientifically smart decision.

But Mr. Dionne’s thinking is inconsistent.  I think this excerpt from “Balancing Faith and Contraceptives” by Scott Lemieux shows where Mr. Dionne’s logic is faulty:

Elsewhere, Dionne effectively refutes his own argument by noting, “While the Catholic Church formally opposes contraception, this teaching is widely ignored by the faithful.” For the same reasons Kevin Drum cites at Mother Jones, if opposition to contraception represented a widely practiced tenet of the Roman Catholic faith, I believe that the government’s interest in securing gender equity with a reasonable, generally applicable law should prevail, but I can understand seeing this as a difficult question. But forgoing contraception is not central to the faith of most practicing Roman Catholics. There’s not a genuine clash between religious freedom and pressing government interests here; rather, a small minority of religious leaders are seeking a special exemption that burdens women in the name of principles the overwhelming majority of their followers reject. The Obama administration’s balancing of the interests here was perfectly appropriate and is better than either alternative Dionne proposes.

In other words, it’s not a matter of “religious freedom” for the Catholic Bishops to try and claim an authority over non-Catholic employees and a secular government that they no longer exercise over their own flock.

Posted in Atheism, Sexuality | 4 Comments